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Seventies star in need of quality control

One LA restaurant that has lasted is Nate ’n Al, which remains in the heart of Beverly Hills, but doesn't taste like it used to

Published 29 May 2011
News Review
932nd article

Michael outside Nate 'n Al in Beverly Hills with the waitress Raisa (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

Chasen's has gone. It did great chilli con carne. Elizabeth Taylor had the dish flown to Rome when she was making Cleopatra.

It was at Chasen's that Ross Hunter, who produced many Doris Day movies, managed the extraordinary feat of smiling warmly at Jay Kanter (an important Hollywood executive) and his wife, Kit, while freezing me, even though I sat between them. This because I'd turned down a Steve McQueen movie he'd offered me.

Dominick's as it used to be has also gone. That had no sign it was a restaurant. Dominick, if he liked you, let you in.

They were two key places when I first spent time in Los Angeles in the Sixties and Seventies.

One restaurant that has lasted is Nate 'n Al, which remains in the heart of Beverly Hills on North Beverly Drive. Established in 1945 by Al Mendelson, it's the archetypal Jewish deli, now run by his grandsons Mark and David, who were absent on the Saturday I went for lunch.

I phoned and convinced the manager I was unbelievably important; otherwise you can't book and have to queue.

It looked much as it did when I used to go with Peter Falk. Then, every star in the firmament was there. Now, Larry King can be seen having breakfast on most days.

Otherwise it's tourists, tourists, tourists.

The sales counter is still on the left, booths all over. Our table was chipped; the place looked run down. What used to be Jewish staff were now eastern Europeans, not Jewish.

I had a Dr Brown's soda.

Forgot how much I liked those.

Our waitress, Raisa, served me the most ghastly chicken soup with lokshen (vermicelli), matzo ball (aka kneidlach, a Jewish dumpling) and kreplach (squares or triangles of pasta dough filled with meat).

"The soup looks very watery," said Geraldine. She was right. The matzo ball, which should have been fairly firm and brown, was a gargantuan albino matzo ball - white, flaccid, tasteless. The kreplach, a whopping raviolo of poor quality.

None of it as good as it used to be at Nate 'n Al in the old days, or at New York's Stage Deli or Carnegie Deli, hangout for Woody Allen before he switched continents. Not, by a long way, as good as Reubens, here in Baker Street.

I couldn't finish the soup.

Raisa refused to take it away even though I asked her. "How can you not finish soup?" she chastised and went to get my pastrami sandwich on rye bread. That was almost perfect.

Raisa told me she was from Belarus.

"When did you come over?" I asked. She refused to reveal this. "Are you in the secret service?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm in the secret service," confirmed Raisa.

"What do I have to pay to get you to take the soup away?" I asked.

Raisa said, "Five dollars. Leave $5 on the table and I'll take the soup."

"I'm asking you again," I said. "This time for another $5: when did you come from Belarus?" "Nineteen eighty-nine," said Raisa.

My dessert of apple strudel was spectacularly good. After scoffing it I said, "Come on, Raisa, let's go into the street and take your photo.

"I'm so ugly in a photo," protested Raisa.

"You're beautiful and $10 richer than when I came in," I responded.

Raisa went a bit bonkers when Geraldine stood in the busy street to take our picture.

Nate 'n Al is not what it used to be, but still has quality. That sums me up, too.

  • When I abandoned the Bombay Brasserie - hated the redecoration, the new manager, the decline in the food - readers directed me to Indian Zing in King Street, Hammersmith. Brilliant.

    I recommended the chef, Manoj Vasaikar, to Shakira Caine to cater a Sunday lunch, which he did marvellously.

    Manoj has now opened Indian Zilla in Barnes. From outside it looks more elegant than the Hammersmith one. I'll be there soon.

  • Here's one of my favourites: Hymie decides it's time his son Jacob got married. So he and his wife, Becky, call in the yentl. A yentl is a Jewish lady who makes introductions with a view to marriage.

    "I vant you should find for my boy Jacob the most marvellous example of Jewish womanhood," explains Hymie.

    The yentl went off and returned three weeks later. "Have I got a girl for your Jacob," she announces. "This girl runs a kosher house, she goes to synagogue three time a week; not only that, she knows all the prayers by heart.

    "This girl is the perfect example of Jewish womanhood at its finest. And on top of all that, not only is this girl a lovely person, she is a real beauty. She's beautiful."

    Hymie says, "Excuse me, could I ask something?" "Sure," says the yentl. "Is she good in bed?" asks Hymie.

    "Vell," replies the yentl. "Some say yes, some say no."

    Michael's missives

    Like Michael, I found Dinner unbelievably noisy. We were seated next to 10 men (another corporate booking?), who were very loud and excited. We asked to be moved, but there was no table free. So after our first course we walked out and went somewhere else.
    Tom Lewis, Hampshire

    At Dinner the room lacked atmosphere. The only good food was the mandarin foie gras, the rest rather ordinary. Fatty duck, over-salted fish, the steak nothing special. The desserts were dull. At the end of the meal we were given a nauseatingly sweet tea-flavoured mousse. Worst of all was the service. Half an hour for the starters to arrive, then an hour for the main course.
    Peter Shaw, Wiltshire

    Glad to read you enjoyed your chips at Dinner. The staff dropped my portion. The replacement was oily beyond belief.
    Mark Barefoot, Hampshire

    When we ate at Dinner there were no yobs to spoil our meal but when I ordered a second cup of coffee I was charged for two cups at £4.50 each. When I complained, the charge for the second cup was removed. I was pleased that my wife, who had tea, wasn't charged for a top-up of hot water!
    Richard Sandler, Enfield

    "Per-lease, restaurant letters too," pleaded Michael last week. Okay. I ate in Pizza Express recently. I had a pizza. It was average.
    Tim Burton, Wokingham

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 3 Thomas More Square, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk